From a very early age, one of the biggest treats in my life was going to the pictures (cinema). In those days, going to the movies was a real “outing.” You have to remember that TV was in its infancy. Like many people, we had only a (by today’s standards) tiny black-and-white set. Most programs were live and targeted primarily at educated, middle-class people. Young people today would be astonished at the number of serious discussion programs that were broadcast – the antithesis of reality TV.
The cinemas were large, the screens huge and the main picture (we usually got to see TWO) would be in glorious Technicolor. I believe the multiplex off Leicester Square was the first multi-screen cinema to open in London and that was not until the end of the Sixties. Hollywood films were in the ascendancy and going to see the latest blockbuster (a term not coined until years later) was a real treat. I’m thinking of movies like Around the World in Eighty Days, The Ten Commandments and The King and I. But there was plenty of good, lesser fare on offer too. Mum’s favourite genre has always been Westerns and she transmitted that to me. I also got to see plenty of musicals and romcoms.
One film I remember seeing at a young age was The Searchers (1956).
I’m not sure how old I was at the time but the movie disturbed me and I never forgot it. With hindsight, I understand why. It was a must-see for any Western fan – John Wayne in a film directed by John Ford, set in Monument Valley. It is now recognized as a masterpiece and Ford’s best Western. At the time, however, many people missed its significance and could never have imagined the influence it would have on filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Wim Wenders. There is a lot more to this movie than meets the eye.
Roger Ebert lists it amongst his “great movies” but expresses reservations about its content: “The Searchers contains scenes of magnificence and [it is] one of John Wayne’s best performances. New York magazine called it the most influential movie in American history. The film is about an obsessive quest. But all the white characters are racist, so is the film intended to endorse their attitudes, or to dramatize and regret them? Today we see it through enlightened eyes, but in 1956 many audiences accepted its harsh view of Indians.”
He goes on to say: ”The Searchers was made in the dying days of the classic Western, which faltered when Indians ceased to be typecast as savages. Revisionist Westerns, including Ford’s own “Cheyenne Autumn” in 1964, took a more enlightened view of native Americans, but the Western audience didn’t want moral complexity; like the audience for today’s violent thrillers and urban warfare pictures, it wanted action with clear-cut bad guys.”
Most older people will have seen the film but for those who haven’t let me just say that it’s about Ethan Edwards’ quest to find his niece, who is kidnapped by Indians at the start of the movie. It takes him years to find her and lots of people – especially Indians – perish along the way. It is possible to watch the movie as a straightforward Western, with plenty of action and Wayne giving the best performance of his career. But Ethan is a bitter and vengeful loser (he lost the war and the woman he loved to his brother) and is also openly racist.
Next time you have a chance to watch it, consider some of the points made by students of film over the years.
“The movie overall, like Ethan’s character, is beautifully ambiguous, amazingly so by 1950s (and Westerns) standards. It is likely that Ford was commenting not only on the post-Civil War Indian Wars in The Searchers, but also on the international Cold War and Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s.” Another film expert writes: “The Searchers rewrites the Western genre in response to the ideological struggles of the fifties.”
“John Wayne gives perhaps his finest performance in a role that predated screen antiheroes of the 1970s; by the film’s conclusion, his single-minded obsession seems less like heroism and more like madness. Wayne bravely refuses to soft-pedal his character Ethan’s ugly side, and the result is a remarkable portrait of a man incapable of answering to anyone but himself, who ultimately has more in common with his despised Indians than with his more “civilized” brethren.”
“The [Comanche chief named Scar] is Ethan’s doppelgänger, everything in himself that he despises. Specifically, Scar has raped Ethan’s brother’s wife… Thus Ethan must kill Scar in order to destroy the complex of violence within himself, and will spend the picture’s storytime … searching to do so.”
Before this post turns into an essay (if it hasn’t already), I’d like to leave you with some more food for thought. French existentialism was in vogue at the time the film was made – is Ethan a modern Sisyphus? On the other hand, I was fascinated to discover some years ago that in Spanish the movie is called “Centaurs of the Desert” (centaurs – “liminal beings caught between the two natures, embodied in contrasted myths, and as the embodiment of untamed nature”). Should we see Ethan as more of a Homeric figure?
Finally, the two most obvious reworkings of The Searchers are Taxi Driver and Paris, Texas. And Wayne’s famous line ”That’ll be the day” inspired a song by Buddy Holly.
And you thought it was just a boring old Western?